Preached on May 27, 2018
Memorial Day Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen.
What the world needs is more “Born from Above Love.”
I was in New York City yesterday! I brought Cecilia there to celebrate her turning 12. I got to watch a dear friend of mine from my high school in New Hampshire, Geno, in his Broadway debut. He and I sang my first duet in a medley from Les Mis at Rundlett Junior High School. So, I’m just saying, my big break may be next. I won’t forget you.
“Come From Away” is the remarkable true story of a small town that welcomed the whole world. Gander, New Foundland is a town the size of Sterling where 38 planes were diverted on September 11, 2001 when the United States closed its airspace for the first time in history.
The people of Gander saved the whole world that day. The size of the population of the town nearly doubled when the planes landed. 7,000 confused, angry, terrified “plane people” from all over the world were put up in people’s homes and schools and community centers. Stores in the town stripped their shelves to bring the “plane people” toiletries, diapers, sanitary products for women, and snacks.
The citizens of Gander made three meals a day for the plane people for four days, gave them air mattresses and hand-me-down clothing and showers, tried to communicate in languages not their own, kept the animals stowed in the bottom of the planes alive including a pregnant Bonobo, got the passengers phones so that they could desperately call home, comforted the bereaved and terrified once the plane people realized what was happening back in the United States, distracted them with jokes, sang karaoke and danced with them in the town bar, found places for Jews and Muslims and Christians to pray together, found translators for the multiple languages spoken, and generally just opened their homes and hearts to strangers from all over the world. One of the cast members said, the show “is not about the sadness of September 11th, it’s about the goodness that came out of it.”
Look to the helpers.
This was my favorite scene: a frightened man from Africa on a bus with his wife in rural Newfoundland, being taken to who-knows-where from a plane that landed far from its destination. They come to a camp full of people from Gander in Salvation Army uniforms, which looks to the frightened man simply like a sea of soldiers in the darkness.
The bus driver stops, and motions for the passengers to get off the bus. The frightened man doesn’t move. He does not understand the bus driver’s language. He does not trust him. The bus driver thinks quick, and points to the Bible that the man’s wife is clutching. She hands it to him nervously. The bus driver doesn’t know the language the Bible is written in, but he figures the chapters and verses are the same. He flips to Philippians and points at chapter 4, verse 6. “Be anxious for nothing,” it says. Now they speak the same language. Pentecost. Relieved, the frightened man gets off the bus.
The people of Gander, New Foundland saved the whole world on September 11th. Like the fire fighters who rushed to the burning remains of the world trade center to pull bodies out of the rubble with their bare hands, the people of Gander, New Foundland heard God calling in the night saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And the people of Gander answered “Here am I. Send me.”
When Jesus talks about heavenly things, I think this is what he means. You and I have a big part to play in the world’s salvation. When there is tragedy, you and I need to be the good. We need not just “look for the helpers”, but BE the helpers.
Most of us are just far too comfortable. We are distracted. We are too concerned with our own safety. We are mostly disconnected from the very real tragedy of the mass dehumanization of God-imaged people that is playing out before our eyes right now in our own country.
We make Facebook posts demanding players stand for the flag at a Football game, and call that patriotism. We go to church occasionally on a Sunday and call that Christianity.
Just because we’re sitting in a garage doesn’t make us a car.
Wilber Rees writes this poem called “Three Dollars’ Worth of God”:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love my enemy or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
I think Nicodemus, our Pharisee in the Gospel text, is maybe hoping for $3 worth of God when he probes Jesus with these questions:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born again?
Nicodemus doesn’t get the bargain basement God as an answer, he gets the expensive one.
Jesus tells him that you can’t see the kingdom of God without being “born from above.” You need to be born, he says, of the water and the spirit. Born again.
Now I know that when some of us hear the term “born again,” we get itchy. I know I do. We think of the person we all know who won’t stop talking about getting saved by Jesus; who makes us uncomfortable at parties.
But being “born from above” simply means waking up, again and again, to the reality that we are all connected. Being born from above means behaving as though we are descendants of heaven…the place where all are welcome and that all means all…where everyone has enough, where we speak the same language to call on the name of the Beloved.
Being born again means acting as though we are residents of God’s kingdom of equals where justice rolls down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.
Being born from above means knowing ourselves as tenants of the place where the meek are blessed, the poor are lifted up on the thrones of the almighty, the religiously persecuted are given a safe place to pray, the sick are healed, and the outsiders are brought in, where all are fed….where all are forgiven.
Being “born from above” simply means knowing one another by God’s name for us ALL, which is “Beloved.”
I remember reading a blog post years ago by Glennon Doyle that said something like, “The first time you’re born, you look around the room and identify the people in it as your family. The second time you’re born, the whole world is your family. Christianity isn’t about joining a club, it’s about recognizing that we are all in the same club. Every last one of us.”
We need to be born again EVERY DAY. We can never be born enough, e.e. cummings says.
The Gospel of John reminds us that God so loves the world that God shows us The Way to save it. God sends us peace and hope and faith and Love, in the form of a human person. God sends The Way to salvation, and tells us it’s LOVE. We know from watching Jesus that The Way involves our bodies. If we want to save ourselves and the whole world with us, we have to put some serious skin in the game. If we’re not making Love tangible and real, it’s not Love. It’s just $3 worth of God.
It is Memorial day weekend. And today we honor those who died to save.
Like the prophet Isaiah, our military hear a call to serve. “Whom shall I send?” The Lord asks, and “who will go for us?”
“Here am I,” they all answered. “Send me.”
Our veterans know about agape love: which is not a feeling, but a sacred duty to keep one another alive, regardless of rank or status, culture or creed. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. That is sacrificial love. That is born from above love.
Our veterans are here today, honoring the sacrifice of their friends.
Our Sterling firefighters are also here today.
Chief Hurlbut makes sure our firefighters are here every year on memorial day in their dress uniforms, sitting in the front row with characteristic stoicism and reverence. Last year on memorial day, I asked who in the room believed in the power of love to make my point in the CLIMAX of the sermon, and everyone in the whole church raised their hands high except the firefighters. They were simply maintaining their dignity. But I said, teasing: “Look around, everyone here believes in love! Except the firefighters! They aren’t raising their hands!”
But the truth is, these guys hear the call to Love every single day. And every day they answer, “here I am. Send me.” They don’t just believe in the power of Love, they ARE the power of love. They rush to the scenes of accidents and fires and drug overdoses and medical emergencies. They run to the scenes most people are running away from.
They hold precious lives in their hands not stopping to inquire whether or not the victim is worthy. Our firefighters know about agape love: which is not a feeling, but a sacred duty to keep one another alive, regardless of rank or status, culture or creed. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. That’s born from above love.
Many of us say that we would die for our children. But some among us volunteer to die for other people’s children. Our military; our firefighters; our police; our first responders…they know on a visceral level that the whole world is our family. That’s born from above Love.
So, just this past Saturday, I was talking to Chief Hurlbut. We were at a First Church funeral together, as we often are. We were making fun of each other, as we often do. He told me he watches my sermons on line. I told him that he should come to my church. He told me that he can’t because he’s Catholic and needs to go to heaven. He asked me if I was gonna make them sing “Kum Ba Yah” and hold hands today while they squirmed. (The jury’s still out on that one.)
Then I asked him what a girl has to do around here to become a chaplain for the Sterling Fire Department. A fire chaplain is a minister who works with the fire department in times of crisis. I said I was interested. He said he would “put me on the list.”
He may have just been humoring me.
But I got really excited. My eyes widened at the prospect of a walkie talkie and a reflective vest. ("cccchhhhhhhhhhh…this is Chaplain Bartlett to Chief Hurlbut, do you copy?”)
(I’m pretty sure I don’t get to have either one of those things.)
“What does the job entail?” I asked.
“All you have to do,” the chief said, ‘is answer the phone. That’s it. Even if I call you in the middle of the night. Just answer the phone. And then you just need to show up and keep the people calm while we take care of putting out the fires.”
That’s it. Answer the call and show up.
Beloved, some of us are not the kind of people that run into burning buildings, or out onto a battlefield. I know I’m not. But there are so many ways to lay down our lives.
Sometimes all you have to do is answer the call and show up. So if you want to risk transformation. If you want a new birth. If you want enough God to disturb your sleep: Answer Love’s call in the night, whatever that looks like for you. Say “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” And then show up. Bring snacks if you think of it. That’s all there is to it.
The world is on fire, so please don’t wait.
Be brave. Be kind. Act as though you are already citizens of heaven. That’s what saves the whole world.
Sermon preached on Sunday, May 13, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
with help from the "Aging Gracefully" Group and Al Long, who won the auction sermon topic.
It is Treasures of the Community auction weekend, So I thought today would be a good day to preach the Treasures of the Community auction winning sermon from last year. This sermon is worth a lot of money. I don’t know exactly how much Al Long paid for this, but probably somewhere in the vicinity of one million dollars.
Al has been a participant for a long time in the “aging gracefully” group here at the church that meets twice a month on Thursday mornings and is led by Barb Dumont. He wanted me to preach on the collected wisdom of the group, because he thinks we all have something to learn from this group of elders aged sixty something to 101.
Please won’t you pray with me…
Mother’s day is a hard day for many.
Amid all of the new moms with cherubic babies just born or just baptized, and soccer moms, and moms of teenagers godblessyouall, and proud grandmas who get to return the kids to their parents whenever they want, and mothers getting ready to plaster on lipstick and a smile and shove their small rambunctious children into a booth at brunch even though some of them would probably rather be on a massage table on a beach in Fiji (which you all richly deserve, of course):
In this room sits mothers who worry every day that they are failing at motherhood.
In this room sits mothers whose children have died, and mothers who have been separated from their children.
And mothers who have ambivalent relationships with their children.
And children and adults whose mothers have died.
In this room sits single parents and widowed parents.
And people taking care of aging mothers and adult children at the same time.
Women who have miscarried or aborted pregnancies.
Folks who were raised by emotionally unavailable and abusive mothers. Folks who were raised without a mother.
People who desperately wish to be mothers and aren’t yet.
And women who never got to fulfill that wish.
And on and on.
“My main gripe about Mother’s Day,” Ann Lamott says, “is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing. And we are all mothers.
No one is more sentimentalized in America than mothers on Mother’s Day, but no one is more often blamed for the culture’s bad people and behavior. You want to give me chocolate and flowers? Great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children. But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&M’s, and maybe flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawers. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain. Like everything else, it can fill me only if it is ordinary and available to all.”
This place and these people right here is part of the chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. Valarie Kaur says “we are birthing a future where love is a public ethic.” That’s our definition of motherhood.
Jesus teaches us that we are one in the family of God. Jesus teaches us that because we belong to God, we belong to each other. Jesus radically reconstitutes the human family to include all of humanity. And then Jesus demands that we love one another as we are loved by God. Meister Eckhart says that like Mary, we are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born. If we are doing it right, we are all mothers birthing more love into the world.
M&Ms for EVERYONE!!
This is the last day of the Easter season, the Sunday before Pentecost. Ascension was Thursday…the day in which Jesus ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of the father.
It is significant that on ascension day Jesus officially leaves us alone to fend for ourselves down here, leaving us with the tools we need, if only we would remember what they are. This is the day we are supposed to remember who we are: protectors of one another, nurturers of the Way of Love, birthers of a new heaven and a new earth.
The reading from the Gospel of John we heard today is in the lectionary every ascension Sunday. In it, we get to overhear Jesus praying before his arrest.
Jesus doesn’t pray very often in scripture. He prays with action, with his body—he heals and feeds and serves. So when Jesus prays with words, we sit up and take notice. In fact, we take it so seriously the few times that he prays in scripture that we pray his prayer every Sunday: the Lord’s prayer.
This prayer is different. In it, Jesus isn’t teaching us to pray, he’s praying for his disciples. Jesus prays at table so that the disciples can hear him, which is so tender. “The words that you gave to me I have given to them,” he says to God.” “I pray that they are one as we are one.”
(I picture the bedsides I have sat next to as a parent lay dying, praying that the holy words of Love they have passed down to their children abide. “God, the words that you gave me I have given to them. I pray they will take care of each other when I’m gone.”)
We also read a different ascension story this morning from 2nd Kings in the Hebrew Bible. Elisha is a follower of the prophet Elijah. Elisha knows that Elijah is about to be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Over and over again, Elijah assures Elisha that though he is ascending, he will be with him always. “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
(I picture the bedsides I have sat next to as a loved one lay dying, adult children saying to parents, “it is OK to go, as long as I live, you will always be with me. I was listening.”)
When I met with the Aging Gracefully group on Thursday, I asked them to mother us on this day: to pass down holy words of love to the family of God. I asked them to pray an extended prayer for us as Jesus prayed. I asked that I be allowed to overhear just as the disciples overheard Jesus. It was a surprisingly hard task, as they don’t yet think of themselves as “wise ones.”
Barb and I asked them a series of questions.
First, we asked what the significant adults in their lives passed down to them. They talked about the morality they “caught” not through words, but through their parents’ and grandparents’ actions: the value of hard work, honesty and integrity.
They learned from their parents to keep their noses clean, to be on time or early, the importance of religion, the importance of family, the importance of saving money and giving it away.
And the group also talked about the prejudices that they learned from parents and grandparents: hatred for Catholics and Italians and French Catholics, Jews and black folks. These lessons were passed down both subtly and explicitly, and they were toxic, and scaffolded by the culture around them.
“The churches never preached against racial and religious hatred and separation,” one of our elders said. “In fact, the churches exacerbated it.”
Our job in every generation is to sift for gold: love amidst the grains of sand of prejudice and hate.
I asked our Aging Gracefully group what holy words of wisdom they had to pass down to younger generations:
One of our elders feels overwhelmed with sadness by the racism that causes immigrants to be treated like dirt, that causes black people to be arrested at Starbucks or shot by police. She says, “We know from science that every single one of us on earth shares the same genes. We are family. We need to step up to the task of making the world better, and making it true that we are all God’s people, answerable to each other.”
Another said: “Stories matter. We pass on stories. Tell your stories. Stuff happens in your life that you have no control over. You still have choices. Pick a community that you feel a part of: where you know the police man and the fire fighter. Stay close to your family.”
And another said: “I value this place so much. What I want to say to my great grandchildren and grandchildren and to all the children is to ‘pay attention to what is going on at First Church in Sterling because something very important is going on right here that I am a part of. Keep going, keep listening, keep acting.’”
Another said: “Seek out community. Seek out a place where you feel valued and loved and can give love. Be in a small group that talks about significant things, personal things, worries, priorities, how you live. Show up. Be present. Be fully present to the person standing in front of you. Listen well, ask questions. Don’t talk so much. Do things that are outside your comfort zone. Be with people who are different from how you see yourself. Try new things. There is so much energy in having made the effort.”
Another said: “The best time to have conversations with your grandkids is in the car. Tell them that when things seem terrible, ‘time will tell you more. Give it time. Time lets you see things in a different way. Keep your confidences. Be trustworthy. Nurture your spirit. Find what comforts you, and what helps you cope spiritually.”
I got the best answers of all when I asked our aging gracefully group what they wished people had told them when they were younger.
Here’s what they said:
Be more planful vs. reactive/reactionary
Buy your own home. Don’t rent.
Put down roots. Find a community you can feel part of. Make connections. Value the connections you have.
“I wished early on that I was told it was valuable to fail. I am a perfectionist raised by a perfectionist. Life is easier if failure is part of your repertoire,”
One elder who will remain nameless said: “Yes. I tell the folks at water color group I am a better artist than you because I have failed more than you have failed.”
Finally I asked, what do you still have to learn? Here were the answers:
“I am always learning. Life has taught me I am not as smart as I think I am.”
“I have to talk less and listen more.”
“I have to learn to ask better questions.”
“I have to learn love for self, STILL.”
“I have to learn from folks younger than me to take more risks; to be more spontaneous; to live in the moment.”
“I need to learn to stop planning ahead and stop living in the past.”
“I still wish I knew how to care for others better.”
We are birthing a future where love is a public effort with the help of our elders.
I am going to close with a poem that Don Wilson wrote about Aging Gracefully.
Straight-back Chairs by Don Wilson
Let us sit on straight back chairs,
not too comfortable, not comfy so--
let us sit, spine erect,
feet flat, knees bent
elbows resting lightly by our sides.
Let us talk of cabbages and kings
or other things
that matter more to us,
Let us wonder, ponder and explore
what living means and
what we do
in the great scheme of things.
And lets turn our senses on,
look sharp and hear,
not just to listen,
but hear the intention,
the thought behind the words.
Let us be heard
when we, too,
have things to say,
yet stumble when we convey
our inner selves
Proud, we hold heads high,
chin up, dry-eyed,
unless a cry escapes
and one tear
rolls down our cheek
so someone gets a peek inside
to what we hide.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.